How to Develop a Poem for Spoken Word Performance Part I

Writing Tips

Developing and rehearsing a poem for spoken word performance can be as rewarding as performing it in front of live audiences. For me, the development of a performance is an ever-evolving process through which I come to understand and appreciate my poetry better. Performance is a kind of bonding experience with a poem—with the experiences and sentiments it expresses. This bonding is a creative process for me, in which I lift the words from the page and nurture them into life with my body and breath.

Plus, developing a poem for performance is fun. It gives you an opportunity to experiment with your body and your voice, to find new meanings in your poetry, and to express yourself in new, creative ways.

If you’re just starting out, it’ll take time, patience, and lots of rehearsal to learn to develop your poetry for confident and successful performances on a consistent basis. These tips, however, will give you a head start on some simple practices that work for me.

  • Find a rehearsal space. A physical space in which to develop and rehearse your poem, alone and uninterrupted, is ideal. This should be a place where you are free to be yourself and to experiment with your voice and your body movements without worrying about disturbing others or being overheard. However, finding such a space can be challenging, especially if you live with others. If that’s the case, then let them know what you’re doing, ask them not to disturb you, and try to tune them out.
  • Memorize your poem. Certainly, you can develop a great performance while reading your poem from a book or the page, but dropping the paper and memorizing your poem frees up your hands for gestures, allows you to make good eye-contact, and creates a “barrier-free” zone between you and your audience. In other words, memorization provides a foundation for developing an intimate interaction with your audience. If you have trouble memorizing, then don’t worry.
  • Love your poem. Learning to memorize your poem gives you an opportunity to truly love it, to feel passionate about it and to appreciate it for what it is—an expression of your unique creativity. If you somehow manage to memorize the poem and don’t love it yet, then take some time and consider its strengths, why it’s important to you and why it’s important to share with others. If it’s not important to you, then it’s unlikely to be important to anyone else. So, cultivate some passion for your poem, and love it.
  • Be Unique. Hopefully, you’ve memorized your poem in ways that are natural to your own speech patterns. But it’s also likely that your recitation sounds rote, canned, and imitational in places. What you’ll want to do is to develop your poem into a unique expression of you, rather than imitate someone else. In my opinion, one of the greatest creative mistakes a newbie can make is to focus on imitating another performer, rather than taking the time to experiment with their own speaking style, rhythm, breath, and gestures. While beginning artists often learn through imitation of the “masters,” imitation creates limitations and nurtures habits that are difficult to unlearn. Check out this video of a poem by Taylor Mali, mocking how some poets present their poetry in a stereotypical and unoriginal way:

So, avoid imitation. Audiences want to experience your performance—your style, your voice, and your gestures. While you might learn from others, be sure to focus on developing your own unique brand of performance.